top of page


Ellen Warner follows an unexpected, retro-route through Cuba

text and photos by Ellen Warner

We race down the three lane motorway at 80 mph. Suddenly without warning, it ends. We slam on the brakes and screech to a halt at the edge of a field. Bewildered, we scan the horizon until we see car tracks leading to a small road on the far side. A few days later, on a Sunday afternoon as we are heading back to our hotel, we hear music-show tunes from the '40s. We round a corner and confront a 45-piece orchestra playing on the sidewalk. Such is Cuba; a country of surprise, of whim and humour. Its charm is the unexpected. Each day is an adventure.


Visually, Cuba is a country frozen in time. Havana feels like the 1950s with James Dean-style cars and bicycles used as the principal means of transport. Outside Havana it is nearer the turn of the century. In towns horse-drawn wagons serve as buses, taxis are horse-drawn carriages or bicycle rickshaws.


Nowhere is the time warm more apparent than in the architecture. Only a handful of buildings and monuments have been constructed since the Revolution in 1959. Scarcely anything has been demolished, little has been painted, nothing maintained. Multiple families live in what used to be grand single family palacios. Laundry hangs over ornate Baroque embellishments, modestly clad people lounge in Art Nouveau doors and talk through windows of superb iron grillwork, and glimpses of ornate staircases and beautiful tiles are part of walking down any street in Havana. As a photographer with a particular interest in Cuban architecture, I have spoken to people who have been to Cuba and read considerably, but nothing has prepared me for such contrasts.


Cuba, 'the pearl of the Antilles', was discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who called it "the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen" and claimed it for Spain. Six decades later Havana was the legal way station for every galleon sailing from Spain's American colonies back to Europe. Treasures of the New World from Mexico to Peru passes through Havana, enriching the city's merchants and businessmen.


By the end of the 18th century Cuba had become the world's leading sugar producer and enjoyed unparalleled prosperity in the New World. The arts flourished and the upper classes wanted only the best for their houses in Havana and country plantations. After the Haitian uprising in 1791 French planters from Haiti poured into Cuba, bringing their taste in music, theatre, philosophy and architecture, which combined with the Spanish/Creole heritage to produce the eclecticism for which Cuba is known.

Independence came comparatively late, in 1902. The early years of the Republic were heady days characterized by a revived economy, a burgeoning middle class and an ensuing building boom. By the 1950s Havana was one of the most exciting, cosmopolitan cities of the world, known for its casinos, beautiful women and rampant corruption. Then came the Revolution in 1959 and priorities changed. The little money available was spent on social programmes, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba entered what Fidel Castro called 'the special period' when even basic commodities such as soap are considered luxuries. The government ordered a million bicycles from China because no one could afford the rising cost of petrol. Yet despite the hardships that are part of everyday life, Cuban people are invariably friendly, jolly and unbelievably resourceful. It is said that there are no better mechanics than Cubans. As they haven't had spare parts in decades, they are remarkably adept at making do.


We spend a couple of days in Havana. We wander the streets of Havana Vieja, which consists of 4000 buildings, many of them of such architectural note that the area was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. We poke our heads into colonial houses with balconies and decorative ceramic tiles, sunny interior courtyards, and doors large enough to let carriages enter-all evidence of Moorish influence in Spain. We see a wealth of ornate Baroque stone carving, most evident in monumental doorways and buildings such as the Havana Cathedral. Neoclassicism is particularly apparent in government buildings, and Beaux Arts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco flourished in the speculative building boom of the early decades of the Republic. Decorative ironwork is everywhere.


I meet with Eusebio Leal, Historian of Havana, to whom the government has given absolute authority for the restoration of Havana Vieja. An energetic man in shirtsleeves who is most often found on the street supervising projects, his office invests inrefurnishing turn-of-the-century hotels and utilises proceeds from them and other tourist ventures to renovate sections of Havana Vieja. Of course, he tells me, there is never enough money to do all that needs to be done. It is a race against time, but they are making headway.


Our two days in Havana pass quickly. We eat in paladares, small restaurants, which the government has recently allowed, people to open in their houses. The food is much better than in the state-run hotels and restaurants, the surroundings are always interesting and there is often music. One day we hire a taxi and drive around Vedado to see the opulent suburban houses built in the early days of the Republic.

On the third day we drive to Trinidad. Just outside of Havana we get on the motorway. There are practically no cars, although there is a lot of other traffic in the form of cows which graze on either side of the road and on the central reservation, bicycles, tractors, a man pushing a wheelbarrow, people on horseback. We pass fields of maize, sugar cane, bananas and fruit trees. Farmers, all wearing straw hats, sell garlic and cheese by their side of the road. When we need to look at the map we can stop in the middle lane as there is no threat of cars behind us. We turn off the autopista and drive through small country villages. The houses all have little porches with lovely lattice work. Roofs are often thatched. We stop in Cienfuegos, a picturesque coastal town, for lunch. It is typical of country towns in that the streets are lined with covered colonnades.


It is late afternoon by the time we arrive in Trinidad, and people are coming home from work in this small colonial town. Horses' hooves clatter down the cobblestone streets, people chat with each other through the rejas (turned wood window grates) of their pastel coloured houses. Over the red tile roofs light is fading on the hills. In its heyday Trinidad exported one third of the island's sugar, dealing directly with Europe, South America and the United States. In 1988 the town and its neighbouring Valle de los Ingenios (which at one point had 56 sugar mills) were made a World Heritage Site. We stay in a 'casa particular', a house which takes paying guests - another recent government concession to free enterprise.


The Senora cooks a delicious meal of shrimp, dried bananas, rice, beans and salad which we eat in the open-air kitchen of this colonial house. The only discordant note is the Cabbage Patch sheets on my bed sent by a relative in the United States. After dinner we take a walk and listen to music wafting out of the Casa de la Trova. Cubans have music in their souls. Each village has its Casa de la Trova (music hall for traditional Cuban music) and one of the delights of walking around Trinidad in the morning is that a wooden bird cage hangs outside almost every house so the birds can chirp in the sun.


We haven't much time so we press on to the eastern end of the island. We pass through farmland and many towns, each with colonnades lining the principal streets. One could spend more time in colonial towns such as Sancti Spiritus and Camaguey, but for the most part this is country to drive through.


We reach Santiago de Cuba, the earliest capital, considered the melting pot of Cuba. It was at this end of the island that Columbus arrived, as well as the French from Haiti three centuries later, and it was the hills of the east that were the strongholds of the rebels of both the Wars of Independence and the Revolution.

It is Saturday night and a band is playing in the Parque Cespedes in the centre of town. There is a Caribbean flair, and we sip mojitos, the rum and lime drink made popular by Hemingway, on the porch of the turn-of-the-century Casa Grande Hotel. Across the Parque we see the colonial house of the conquistador Diego Velazquez, who established the first seven Spanish settlements in Cuba. To our left is the neoclassical Cathedral, and right in front several men are giving rides on bicycle-powered toy cars to pretty little girls all dressed up for the evening.


The following day we visit El Morro, the castle at the entrance of Santiago harbour, and wander around the old French quarter of town where the action is on the streets. Groups playing dominoes huddle around tables, people hurry to the market and children in their school uniforms return home for lunch. That night we go to a paladar which has a dentist's chair sitting in the middle of the living room. We ask if there is a dentist in the house-no, but there is an ophthalmologist, we are told. A beautiful chandelier from another era hangs in the dining room.


We travel over the mountains to Baracoa, the oldest town in Cuba, on a road constructed in the 1960s. Before then the only approach was by sea. It was here that Columbus landed in 1492 and in the church one can see a cross erected by him. Flanked by the sea on one side and El Yunque, an anvil-shaped mountain, on the other, Baracoa looks like a ghost town of the American west with wooden pillars holding up the verandas of the central square. I stumble onto what I think is a parade following a band. It turns out that it is a funeral procession - in Cuba even funeral music sounds festive. That night I have ajeco for dinner, a delicious soup made out of pumpkin, coconut and mango. We stay in a hotel that used to be a prison on a hillside with a magnificent view over the town.

We retrace our steps back up the island and our last stop is Remedios, a charming colonial town not far from Trinidad in the centre of what used to be sugar plantations. At its centre is a very large square dominated by one of the finest churches in Cuba, San Juan Bautista. The neoclassical façade gives no warning of the ornate Baroque gold-encrusted altar inside. We sit in the park at the centre of the square and watch the world pass by - a horse-drawn wagon carries ice, a man rides a bicycle covered with lettuce, oxen pull a garbage wagon. As always, people are friendly and come up to talk with us. This time one of them is a novelist who has twice been imprisoned for his criticism of the government.


We return to Havana where we spend our final two days. Our last day we take a trip to Pinar del Rio and Vinales in the West. This is tobacco country and it is very different from the East. The countryside here is less tropical and there are fewer people on the roads. Vinales is dominated by odd cone-shaped mountains called mogots, reminiscent of mountains in Chinese paintings. It is a small town with the usual parade of columns, although here they are shorter and chunkier than elsewhere. We have lunch in a paladar where a man plays the piano and another the saxophone. The piano is missing a few keys, but the blues tunes sound just fine. The mood is jolly, and a couple dances.


It is hard to believe that tomorrow we will leave Cuba. It will be strange to be on a road with more than a few cars, strange not to hear music so often throughout the day, strange not to delight in the many ways people have ingeniously "made do", strange to have the world comparatively predictable again.

bottom of page